“Everything that I learned at Michigan State in the supply chain management program, I use all the time at Apple.”
Deirdre O’Brien (B.A. Operations Management ’88), senior vice president of retail + people at Apple, spoke to an audience of more than 250 undergraduate and MBA students on Nov. 11. As the executive guest at the 2021 Sylvan T. Warrington Visiting Lectureship in Ethics and Leadership, she joined Dean Sanjay Gupta in a virtual “fireside chat” to discuss everything from her career journey at the tech giant to her personal advice for tomorrow’s business leaders.
Foundation built at MSU
“When I switched from accounting to supply chain management, I fell in love with the work,” O’Brien said of her time as an undergraduate. “I thought that actually liking doing my homework was a great sign.”
From her first course in operations management, O’Brien developed a passion for bringing processes together to deliver products to customers. She was able to bring this to life in her first role at Apple, scheduling production lines for some of the early Mac items at the original Apple factory in 1988.
Now, O’Brien has been with the company for more than 30 years and over that time has helped create the Apple Stores, launch Apple’s first online and retail stores, and directly support the release of every major product the company has had for the last two decades. As such, O’Brien has been recognized as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in 2019 and 2021.
“Getting the chance to work on the most iconic products you can think of — like the first iPod or the iPhone — was magical,” she said. “Being part of the teams that were delivering that work was so rewarding.”
Although Apple is seen as a hugely successful company today, there were many bumps in the company’s history where things weren’t always easy. O’Brien’s grit, tenacity and drive as a Spartan helped her make the most of those times.
“I learned more in those horribly challenging times than any other time,” she said. “When I was in those positions that I did not feel ready for, it forced me to learn a lot along the way.”
Culture and values at Apple
Through it all, Apple’s culture and set of values have been something that O’Brien has embraced in each of her roles and as a leader for both retail and online teams and the people team.
“Our soul is our people. We truly value each person who is here at Apple, and we know that we are at our absolute best when we are all showing up and have a strong sense of belonging.”
Beyond cultivating a strong culture based on trust and respect for its employees, O’Brien shared how Apple also puts the customer at the center of everything the company does.
“Every day, each person can make a difference,” she said. “If you’re part of a team and you know you’re part of something bigger and doing something in service of others, that creates something special.”
In addition to the people-focused philosophy, O’Brien shared how Apple’s work is also driven by accessibility, racial equity and justice, inclusion and diversity, environmental and education goals.
“These things make us all so proud to work at Apple because we feel like we’re not only doing fantastic work for our customers, but we really are working to make the world a better place.”
Leading through the pandemic
Apple’s values really came to life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, influencing every decision leadership made — like being one of the first companies to close retail stores around the world, including its massive operations in China.
“We fell back to our ethics and values,” she said. “We felt our decision was absolutely right because we wanted to keep our teams safe and our customers safe.”
Under O’Brien’s leadership, Apple doubled down on its focus on people, “letting care drive its decision making,” she said. In addition to pivoting supply chain operations to source more than 30 million masks and 10 million custom-built face shields for doctors and nurses, Apple created 10 different operating plans for its stores around the globe, each focused on the safety of people.
“I’ve never seen more flexibility; I’ve never seen more passion and care,” she said. “We’re doing things differently which started during the pandemic that we’re taking forward . . . building those agile new muscles. We feel like we got the chance to innovate so much during this time.”
Advice for today’s Spartans
The Warrington Lecture is designed to not only cover specific topics in an open discussion but also allow students to engage with the guest speaker. O’Brien shared advice with the eager students and answered questions from the audience about work-life balance, time management, what makes a great team and more.
O’Brien’s biggest piece of advice was to focus on learning and embrace being uncomfortable. “My saying is, ‘There’s no growth in the comfort zone.’ I’m uncomfortable on a daily basis because I’m constantly learning.”
As a role model for today’s women in business, O’Brien also urged Broad Spartan women to have confidence in their abilities and to believe they belong in the room.
“There needs to be more women in leadership, there’s no question about it,” she said. “Keep going and have confidence.”